Bryan Holdman, Writer and Producer of ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ Discusses How the Northwestern Network Helped Him Launch a Successful Career in Television

Written by Kristofer McNeeley

Photograph by Andy Reaser

According to Deadline.com, Pretty Little Liars, which airs on ABC Family, just finished its 4th season as the most tweeted telecast of 2014 and the #4 most tweeted series telecast in TV history. Not bad for its Co-Executive Producer, Bryan Holdman (C94), the veteran TV scribe whose other credits include Everwood, Kyle XY and The Vampire Diaries.  

Bryan sat down with us to discuss how an aspiring feature writer from Colorado found his niche in television. From Writers’ Assistant to Producer, his rise through the ranks of television began nearly a decade ago with a lot of hard work, a giant leap of faith and the help of relationships he made while a student at Northwestern.

What was your first job as a staff writer? How old were you?

My very first paid writing gig on television was as a freelance writer on Everwood. It was late 2005, so I was 33.

How did you get that gig?

To give you a little history, for many of the first 10 years that I lived in Los Angeles, I was pursuing a career as a feature film writer. In 2002, Everwood creator and NU alum, Greg Berlanti (C94), hired me to adapt and write an original screenplay based on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Writing that script for Greg helped me land a manager and eventually secured me a spot in the 2004 Disney Fellowship for Feature Writers, which eventually led me to TV.

How did Greg know your work when he offered you the feature script? Had you written together before?

Greg and I were in the Creative Writing for the Media program together at Northwestern. We spent two years in this really intensive, very small writing workshop together with about 8 other students, so we knew each other’s writing very well from college.

You said the Disney Fellowship led you to TV. Did something happen during that year?

I had always been very dismissive of television, despite some of my friends from NU finding success in the medium. People like Greg and Julie Plec (C94) are both working in television. They saw something in me I didn’t see in myself, which is there’s something about me that is really great for a television writers’ room.  Specifically, that I am an inherently social person and TV is a communal creative process.  They would often encourage me to write spec scripts in my spare time and gently pushed me to explore their world a bit, but I always kind of resisted.

Then, during the Fellowship year, I got a firsthand look at the  day-to-day life of a screenwriter. By the end, I had realized it was entirely too solitary for me. Greg and Julie were right. So, with the support of Carmen Smith, then Director of the Disney Fellowship, I changed direction and pursued television, which I somehow knew would make me happier.

As I was in the midst of writing the script for the freelance gig in October of 2005, I got a call from Julie Plec, who had sold Kyle XY to ABC FamilyThe show was going to series and they were hiring a writing staff and she said she wanted to bring me in to interview. I came on board as a Fellow and, shortly after that, ABC Family gave the show a backorder and there was money in the budget to bring me on as a full-time staff writer.

You were able to catapult off relationships every step of the way?

Yeah. Now, at every step of the way I had to also show up and do the work. I had to come up with the goods. I had to write the script. But, if we are talking about NU and about alumni and entertainment, I owe much of my career to connections and relationships from Northwestern.

Were there any other influencers from Northwestern who helped you grow your work and find your voice as a young writer?

Aaron Harberts (C95), a fellow writer whose credits include Revenge Pushing Daisies, is the first name that comes to mind and is equally as important as Greg and Julie.  As a young writer working on spec material, it is important to cultivate a creative network that will keep you from working in a vacuum. Aaron was always an open door creatively and his notes and feedback were an important part of my growth as a writer.

What advice would you give to an aspiring TV writer?

 Three things I always tell aspiring writers:

  1. Read good writing. Read writing that excites you and inspires you and makes you tingle, when you hear the way that the words are strung together.
  2. Read bad writing. Try and figure out why you aren’t responding to it, and then apply that to the third piece of advice….
  3. Write.

Bryan Holdman graduated from the Northwestern University School of Radio/TV/Film in 1994, where he also completed the Creative Writing for the Media Certificate Program. He received an MFA in Screenwriting from the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television in 2001.

Kristofer McNeeley graduated from Northwestern University with a BS in Interdepartmental Studies in 1996  

The newly launched NUEA blog strives to showcase alumni accomplishments while offering insight into the entertainment business. If you have topics you would like to see featured, want to “pitch” your story to be included in the blog or want to become a contributing writer please e-mail blog@nueawest.org